BWW Reviews: Oregon Shakespeare Festival's ROMEO AND JULIET Brings This Classic to Life
Have you heard of this…Oregon Shakespeare Festival? If you have then you’re probably one of the roughly 125,000 that travel to Ashland during the course of the year to take part in OSF. If you haven’t then…wait, really? You haven’t? Hmm…I’m sure you have. This is awkward, let’s move on.
Some quick knowledge concerning the fest, OSF has been running since 1935 and is home to the oldest existing full-scale Elizabethan stage in the Western Hemisphere. The festival is an eight-month season of 11 plays, and doesn’t actually limit itself to only Shakespeare productions. In fact, seven of the 11 productions during the season are by classic or contemporary playwrights not Shakespeare. First play I ever saw there, years ago, was RAISIN IN THE SUN. Can’t wear white shoes now. Thanks for that, OSF.
But enough jibber-jabber, let’s talk shows. Playing right now is ROMEO AND JULIET; ANIMAL CRACKERS; MADEA/MACBETH/CINDERELLA; TROILUS AND CRESSIDA; PARTY PEOPLE; HENRY V; THE VERY MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, IOWA; AS YOU LIKE IT; and the eclectic performance interludes of the GREEN SHOW. I was able to get down to Ashland and catch ROMEO AND JULIET as well as HENRY V, hoping to keep in true form to the OSF’s middle name. So thus follows Part One of Broadway World’s two-part Oregon Shakespeare Festival review:
ROMEO AND JULIET
Treatments of Shakespeare. That’s the most interesting thing when discussing the Bard. You can draw out meaning until the end of time, you can talk about who performed it best, the exhaustive way in which these texts cover the English language, you can talk about the what for a long, long time and it’s worth it. But I think we’re all pretty familiar with ROMEO AND JULIET, so let’s look at the how.
The OSF production of ROMEO AND JULIET is set in California, when the United States was wrestling control of the California territory away from Mexico, just after Spain had released control themselves. ROMEO AND JULIET in Spanish?! Buckle up. But truthfully, you’ll be surprised at how the story places fairly seamlessly in the stead of Italy. Both the Italian and Mexican/Spanish cultures share the tradition of large, patriarchal families, as well as a heady machismo that allows for rivalry and conflict between youths (forgive my stereotyping). There is a vein of showmanship and performance that seems to run throughout the narrative quite naturally (think Mercutio and his speeches), and the Mexican/Spanish persona on the stage responds actively to that vein. Plus…romance. It just fits, is what I’m sayin’.
The Spanish California setting re-awakens some of this material by glossing it with a fresh brush. Sometimes that’s all it takes to make an old story come to life again. Crafting characters with a different sort of fire, a different voice (in language or even just dialectically), is good. It’s worthwhile and completely effective in providing a fresh angle for the audience. Wakes you up, makes you pay attention. But it is a fairly superficial change. I can only cite two instances when dropping into the Spanish language is used as an effective stylistic choice instead of being used on a throwaway phrase, and one of those successful instances is the opening chorus, so there’s still a lot of play left for opportunity.
The second target this shift seems to be aiming for is a new relationship dynamic between the native families and the insurgent ‘law men’. The Prince of Verona is replaced with an American General, and Count Paris is replaced with Officer Paris of the American army. According to the liner notes, the dynamic in Juliet’s pairing with Paris now becomes about ensuring the Capulet’s security (and possibly safety) during a chaotic and potentially violent time in California. Angering General Prince with disruption of the peace becomes more dangerous, as his very physical presence is symbolic of America’s threat to Mexico. It’s an interesting premise. Did it show up? Well…the text doesn’t really allow it to show up. For obvious reasons, the reading is just not there in the surface narrative. However, for those in the audience more intelligent than I, possessing full understanding of the Mexican-American War and its consequences, the subtext is probably clear.
My conclusion about the culture move as a whole is…it’s fun. It’s a cool way to spice things up for an audience. Does it add new readings or revelations? Not really. Which feels like a missed opportunity. It certainly doesn’t lose anything by making the shift, though, so don’t be a spoilsport. Enjoy the accents.